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The Dartmouth
June 21, 2024 | Latest Issue
The Dartmouth

No Balm in Gilead

Questions of race lie at or near the surface of many of the United States' debates on public policy, and the rancorous divisions they produce have no easily foreseeable end. Those weary souls who are wont to discern a teleology in nature must begin to see in race conflict some sort of great test or trial imposed by Providence, but what the precise nature of this test may be, or how we may recognize whether we are passing or failing, is more than anyone has yet dared seriously to address. Two outstanding characteristics which we might make note of concerning debate over racial questions in this country are these: the extreme reluctance of whites to come to grips with these questions with unflinching honesty (an unfortunate development indeed, for if there is one great truism in an era of mass communications it is that those who are not willing to engage a subject will have their thinking done for them), and the failure to question the fundamental terms in which debate is framed; in fact, the quasi-superstitious acceptance of an "essentialist" view of race as one of the immutably vital components in determining the course of one's life. Indeed, the very term "race relations" suggests approval of the view that there is something "essential" about race; for presumably there is no need to build bridges over imaginary gulfs.

Important intellectual elements in America are currently attempting to construct an extreme, one might say an ultra-racialist society, that is, one agonizingly aware of its differences and what they have meant, but one in which at the same time racism, that is, any notion of superiority or inferiority, is utterly beyond the pale; a curiously quixotic endeavour. A casual perusal of journals of sociology, textbooks, newpapers, the evening news, etc. betrays a country obsessed with the subject, yet constantly tiptoing around its more delicate aspects. The most obvious respect in which judging based on physical appearance is of concern to students at Dartmouth, for instance, i.e. the mutual attraction of the sexes, suggests a possible opening for some refreshing candor on the subject of race, yet the topic remains largely taboo here too.

The situation is not helped by historical works such as that recently on "Black London" by Professor Gerzina or on color attitudes towards Ethiopians in the Mediterranean world of Roman antiquity, by the late Professor Snowden, which to me suggest a highly conscious attempt to manipulate the historiography so as to "racialize" every period of history, and hence every historical debate of the present, which has not been hitherto. Implicit in this manipulation is a reproof: how dare we imagine that there could ever be an area of study where the overriding importance of race is less than paramount, where mousy--for which read cowardly--scholars can retire with relief from the raving polemics of the day? Moreover, there is in 'educated' discourse a misleading internationalization of the problems of the United States, with implications that are nothing less than sinister: I was struck several days ago by a headline in the New York Times discussing the voting patterns of "nonwhites" in the recent British elections. The ideological presupposition of the article that, not only in the United States but throughout the world, there is an unending struggle for political power between all "whites" and all "nonwhites" is scarcely one to make those of use poor saps deficient in melanin feel comfortable, nor to promote a spirit of harmony and cooperation.

If there is a category of people that should elicit our profound suspicion in racial discourse, then, it is not a political category but rather an attitudinal one: those who speak with assured confidence. It is difficult to believe that anyone who speaks in the United States with straight-faced certainty on the subject, as though there were anything obvious or clear-cut about what path we are to take, has considered the attendant issues in much depth. With race, as with many issues, there seems to be no going back and no going forward. But neither can the problem be willed away by 'multiethnic' boxes on government forms and the like--we can never return to a state of racial innocence, if such a thing existed. Did not Tully point out that those who do not learn their history are fated to remain infants? As a mass-literate society, we must grapple constantly with the crushing weight of the past. As a result, while we may sigh sentimentally as we see variegated children play together unconscious of such matters, we ought to recognize that their temporary innocence is, for practical purposes, quite useless in determining how we should conduct ourselves. It seems likely that race, like that other great sociological "illusion", the marital bond, is with us to stay--and therein lies the difficulty.